Donald Trump has been accused of a making an “assassination threat” against rival Hillary Clinton, plunging his presidential campaign into a fresh crisis.
The volatile Republican nominee was speaking at a rally in Wilmington, North Carolina, about the next president’s power to appoint supreme court justices. “Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish, the second amendment,” said Trump, eliciting boos from the crowd.
“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the second amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know. But I’ll tell you what, that will be a horrible day.”
The second amendment to the constitution protects the right of Americans to bear arms. Trump has accused his Democratic rival of wanting to abolish it, a charge that she denies.
His extraordinary remark on Tuesday was swiftly condemned by Democrats. Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, said: “This is simple – what Trump is saying is dangerous. A person seeking to be the president of the United States should not suggest violence in any way.”
Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, where the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting took place in Newtown in 2012, went further in a tweet: “Don’t treat this as a political misstep. It’s an assassination threat, seriously upping the possibility of a national tragedy & crisis.”
The British novelist Salman Rushdie then weighed in, tweeting: “Of course the Trump flacks are now trying to confuse the issue, but Senator Murphy is clear about what Trump meant.”
The claim was rejected by Jeff Sessions, a Republican senator from Alabama and longtime Trump supporter. He responded on CNN: “Totally wrong. I don’t believe that’s true. I don’t believe that’s at all what he meant.”
But Sessions acknowledged: “It may have been awkwardly phrased.”
Trump has been striving to show more discipline on the campaign trail after a string of gaffes in recent weeks. He remained in control in Detroit on Monday when a speech on the economy was repeatedly interrupted by protesters. But in Wilmington, he apparently could not resist going off-script.
Campaigners for gun control expressed outrage at his off-the-cuff remark. Po Murray, chair of the Newtown Action Alliance, said: “Donald Trump continues to pander to the corporate gun lobby and the gun extremists who thrive on fear and rhetoric.
“Any suggestion that gun violence should be used to stop Hillary Clinton from appointing supreme court justices is dangerous and reckless. It’s no surprise that 50 GOP national security experts have signed a letter making a pledge to not vote for him.”
Mark Glaze, former executive director of Everytown for Gun Safety, said: “It may well be an incitement to violence, but understand it’s the basic theory on which the modern gun industry is built. Their core audience is people who hate the government and believe they’re going to have to take up arms against it. My guess is this is a deliberate dog whistle to that significant number of people.
“There are people out there who hear this kind of thing in a certain way, and if they’re already inclined to hatred of government and Hillary Clinton and see guns as a public policy solution, who knows what could happen?”
The concern was echoed by Paul Begala, a former adviser to Bill Clinton in the White House. “This is not something that should be joked about,” he told CNN. “I hope in the best case you could say he was joking. It didn’t seem like a joke to me. Tony Schwartz, the guy who wrote [Trump’s book] The Art of the Deal, says Trump never jokes.
“I fear that an unbalanced person hears that in this inflamed environment and, God forbid, thinks that was a threat. I certainly take it as a threat, I really do, and Trump needs to apologise.”
Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and National Security Agency, said on the same channel: “You get to a certain point in this business, you’re not just responsible for what you say, you are responsible for what people hear. And that might be a good lesson.”
As yet another controversy threatened to engulf him, Trump’s campaign insisted that his words had been misunderstood. Jason Miller, a spokesperson, attempted to explain the candidate’s comments. “It’s called the power of unification,” he said. “Second amendment people have amazing spirit and are tremendously unified, which gives them great political power. And this year, they will be voting in record numbers, and it won’t be for Hillary Clinton, it will be for Donald Trump.”
The supreme court has become a central election issue since the death earlier this year of Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative who has not yet been replaced. Trump claims that liberal judges could threaten the second amendment.
Progressive pressure groups that have been watching the process closely joined the condemnation of Trump on Tuesday. Michael Keegan, president of People for the American Way, said: “There has been no shortage of inexcusable rhetoric from Trump, but suggesting gun violence is truly abhorrent. There is no place in our public discourse for this kind of statement, especially from someone seeking the nation’s highest office.”
Neil Sroka, communications director of Democracy for America, added: “Honestly, it’s a little unclear whether Donald Trump was calling for his supporters to assassinate a Clinton court pick or take up an armed insurrection against a government that allowed her to appoint one. Either way, the only thing more insane than electing someone president who blows this kind of violent dog whistle would be buying the furious spin coming out of his campaign trying to explain it away.”
Trump has produced a shortlist of conservative justices that he hopes will appeal to the Republican base and deter those considering defecting to Clinton, who could set the court on a liberal trajectory for years to come.
He told supporters on Tuesday: “I guess there’s a scenario in which this president could pick five supreme court justices, and if you pick two that are left, left, left, it’s going to be a disaster for our country.”
The NRA had endorsed him early, he added. “We want to replace with justices very much like Justice Scalia and that’s going to happen, that’s so important. One of the most important elections for a lot of reasons, not just that,” he said.
He also told the rally that Clinton is “dangerous” and could destroy the country from within because of her immigration policies.
Trump was introduced by Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, who brought up the case of Shahram Amiri, an Iranian nuclear scientist executed for spying for the US. Clinton received emails mentioning him on her controversial personal server when she was secretary of state.
Giuliani said: “Remember Hillary told us there was no top secret information on her emails? Remember she told us that. Well, she lied! And I don’t know the connection between that and the death of Mr Amiri, but what I do know is it put a lot more attention on him when they found those emails. It certainly put him at great risk, even if they didn’t find them, and it shows you that when the director of the FBI said she was extremely careless, he was being kind.”
But Giuliani repeatedly waved away chants of “Lock her up!” from the crowd.